Tomorrow is Canada Takeout Day. Please, if you care about the health of the nation and the restaurant industry it purports to save, avoid participating in this well-intentioned but boneheaded initiative, which encourages Canadians to order delivery or takeout meals “en masse” this Wednesday and every Wednesday – until life goes back to normal.
Life is not going back to normal any time soon. According to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, normality will not return until a vaccine for COVID-19 is found, which he predicted last week could take six to 18 months.
Restaurant takeout and delivery have been declared an essential service, but most restaurants that are offering takeout are doing it out of desperation because they have no other choice. Takeout is not sustainable for most restaurants. And without additional emergency relief measures for small businesses, it will not be nearly enough to save the restaurant industry.
No matter how well-intentioned, a large-scale celebration that puts undue pressure on these fragile food operations is a potential recipe for disaster.
How does going out “en masse,” right around the same time that infection rates of COVID-19 are about to start peaking in several provinces, comply with public health directives to stay home?
To make matters worse, Takeout Day isn’t just urging hordes of Canadians to descend on restaurants or dial up delivery on the same day. It is actually asking everyone to do so at the same time.
Why? So we all can kick back on the couch, dig in and watch the Canada’s Great Kitchen Party Home Edition. This virtual concert, featuring Jim Cuddy, Alan Doyle, Ed Robertson, Barney Bentall and Tom Cochrane, will begin streaming live on Facebook at 8 pm EST.
“I kind of envisioned it as a variety show, like in the old days, when we all sat around the TV together, watching and eating our dinner,” says Branding & Buzzing president Sean Beckingham, whose rallying cry is being supported by dozens of food suppliers, high-profile chefs and hospitality associations including Restaurants Canada.
Restaurant takeout is a huge conundrum to which there are no easy answers.
Takeout is essential if it eases the strain on other food services. According to a survey last week by Angus Reid, 52 per cent of Canadians are intending to avoid going to grocery stores, which are perceived as unsafe to visit.
Restaurant takeout can and is helping to fill this gap. Since being ordered to close their dine-in facilities, more and more restaurants have added frozen foods, fresh produce and pantry items to their takeout and delivery options. Not just to increase sales and recoup the cost of inventory (most restaurants have gone through their warehouse stores already), but also to support the farmers, fishermen and small-food suppliers that are also affected by the nosedive in sales.
There are also many restaurants that are feeding front-line workers, food banks and out-of-work restaurant staff.
“We feel very positive about the whole thing,” says JP Potters, general manager of Vancouver’s Boulevard Kitchen + Oyster Bar in the Sutton Place Hotel, which is selling ready-to-freeze provision packs, plastic-sealed heat-and-eat meals, wine by the bottle, and happy hour cocktail kits along with $5 meal cards for the food bank and unemployed staff at other restaurants.
“We’re breaking even. It’s allowed us to bring back two or three sous chefs. It justifies keeping the restaurant open. And when Boulevard reopens, we see this as a new business opportunity with long-term upside.”
Boulevard is, however, in the privileged position of being owned by its landlord, Northland Properties. They don’t have to pay rent.
Takeout is a lot less profitable when using delivery apps such as Foodora, DoorDash or Uber Eats, which take a 20- to 30-per-cent commission from restaurants – not even counting the delivery charge to consumers.
There are co-op systems in development right now that are trying to trim these costs and stem the bleed. But they’re not there yet.
Without additional supports to small businesses – rent relief, a ban on commercial evictions, lowered interest rates for credit cards – it will not be enough to save most restaurants, which already operate with zero-thin margins and cannot afford to incur more debt.
Safety is an issue that has not been well addressed. The BC Centre for Disease Control was slow to come out with safety guidelines to support this essential service. As of this week, the guidelines for food businesses doing takeout do not acknowledge that masks should be worn to reduce the risk of spreading the virus – which is not in keeping with federal guidelines. It also acknowledged that “physical distancing in busy work environments, such as kitchens, may be difficult.”
David McMillan, a partner in Montreal’s Joe Beef restaurant group, tried to offer meal kits. “But then every media outlet and ding dong on social media started writing about what we were doing,” says Mr. McMillan, also the author of the now best-selling and aptly named cookbook, Surviving the Apocalypse.
“The next thing we knew, we had 10 people in the dining room packing the boxes and 20 people squeezed into small kitchens. I looked at the guy slicing the tomatoes and thought, I don’t know that dude that well. I don’t know where he went last night. I’ve spent my whole career trying to stuff people’s bodies with the healthiest, organic food and wines. This does not feel comfortable.”